The SAT-Prep Industry Isn't Going Anywhere

The changes to the test won't lessen the anxiety that parents and students feel.

David Coleman, the president of College Board, thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.” When he presented the redesigned SAT last week and announced that the Khan Academy would provide free test preparation online, he declared it a “bad day” for test prep companies

The problem, though, is not test prep but the test. It is not teachers and tutors who make students anxious; it is the SAT. I have been an SAT teacher and tutor for over a decade for the Princeton Review (the views I present here are entirely my own; I do not represent the Princeton Review) and I will admit that test prep has no educational benefit as soon as Coleman admits the same about the SAT. Until then, the test prep industry is not going anywhere.

Although more schools than ever are making SAT scores optional for application, good test prep will remain important as long as high-stakes, time-constrained, multiple-choice exams are being used to determine who gets admitted to the most selective colleges and universities. Since most of the metrics these colleges use to determine who to accept are based on indelible aspects of a person’s identity or long-term accomplishments like GPA and extracurricular activities, it would be foolish for a student not to try to improve the one thing that can be improved in a relatively short amount of time. 

A student of mine recently scored in the 98th percentile in the reading and writing sections of the SAT and the 95th percentile on math.  I congratulated her and wished her luck with her applications, assuming she would not take the test again. I soon heard, however, that the college advisor at her school was strongly advising her to retake the SAT as well as the ACT since, as the advisor put it, anything a student can do to provide herself an advantage at the top schools is worth it.

Test prep providers exist not only because the SAT matters so much but also because it has failed students and colleges: it provides a poor measure of real academic achievement, places too much value on a single performance, and indicates nothing more clearly than family income.  Coleman acknowledged these failures last week when he said,With so much riding on a single exam or two (most schools take the best score on each section, which is why it is foolhardy to take the SAT just once), is it any wonder that parents and students are anxious about the SAT? Test prep companies step in to relieve that anxiety, in the same way that doctors treat illness.  It is important not to confuse the medicine with the sickness.

It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools. And we've also been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and filled with unproductive anxiety. . . And too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.

I applaud College Board’s recognition of the gap between what students actually study in high school and what is on the SAT, particularly since the back cover of the current edition of College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide claims that “the SAT . . . tests your skills in reading, writing, and mathematics—the same subjects you’re learning in school.”

Fritz Stewart, a founding tutor at Noodle Education, argues that tutoring addresses the “gap between what students are learning in high school and what’s being tested on the SAT.” He credits John Katzman and Adam Robinson, who founded the Princeton Review in 1981, with reinventing test prep because “they recognized that mismatch . . . 30 years before the College Board even admitted the problem. What the test prep industry does is fill the gap.”

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James S. Murphy is a freelance writer and SAT tutor based in Boston. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Way We Like Now: Aesthetics in the Age of the Internet. 

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